It’s 1969 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood on the edge of the city. It used to be a bustling place; flourishing, a hive of activity, but not anymore. Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has seized land, ready to bulldoze and rebuild, but with the people gone.
Two Trains Running, performing now until March 3 at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, is the 1990 play from August Wilson, the seventh in his ten-part series of plays reflecting the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. They’re called The Pittsburgh Cycle.
The title of the piece refers to the two trains that run daily from Pittsburgh to the south, though as events slowly unfold and you become acutely aware of the play’s setting, its time, the location, and the characters that inhabit this world, it could also be a reference to the compare and contrast rhythms of what you witness and the parallels you can draw. When the play opened on Broadway in 1992, there was a section in the Playbill where Wilson talked of the title. “There are always and only two trains running,” he said. “There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both.”
Writer Wilson often insisted that his plays were never autobiographical, yet once you become familiar with his background, his work was clearly influenced by the experience of his personal life. When the play begins, several local business owners and residents have already taken whatever the authorities have offered and moved on. As Memphis Lee (James Craven) owner of the diner on Wylie Avenue states, “One time you couldn’t get a seat in here.”
Outside in the world, the long struggle of enforcing legal rights for African-Americans has brought about change. But while the liberation of the black race and the legal victories of the civil rights movement was a monumental step, daily life for an impoverished black living in the city remained a struggle. Low wages and uncertain futures were the norm. The two trains, one of progress and a hope of wrongs becoming right, ran parallel with the other, the one that conveyed a sense of hopelessness that was all pervasive.
Director Lou Bellamy knows August Wilson. His Penumbra Theatre in Minnesota produced Wilson’s first professional production. When Bellamy worked in New York for the first time in 2006 it was to direct a revival of Two Trains Running. It’s his passion for the piece that is on display in the new exemplary Arizona Theatre Company production. You can sense it before the play begins from the look of Vicki Smith’s detailed scenic design of the well-worn restaurant, and you can feel it from the way the cast embody their characters; they’re lived-in. Both setting and cast reek of authenticity, a notable achievement on a forum where by default reality is an artificial experience, yet here we’re watching a world inhabited by people who appear all too real.
The seven-member cast, six men, one woman, meet at the restaurant daily and gossip. They talk of their lives, their struggles, of the people left in the neighborhood, and of each other whenever the subject of the conversation is out of the scene. Despite how well-rounded a character is drawn – Wilson’s ear for authentic African-American dialog is powerfully spellbinding – each feels parts of their lives are either unfulfilled or missing, reflected in their incomplete, single names.
There’s Wolf (Lester Purry) who runs an illegal lottery and uses the restaurant’s payphone as his office, Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) who wisely philosophies on the oppression his race continues to face. West (Dennis W. Spears) the neighborhood undertaker who provokes the jealousy of the community because of his wealth. Sterling (Cedric Mays) the young man recently released from jail who acts as though his only path forward will be the road that’ll lead him back behind bars. Hambone (Ahanti Young) the mentally disturbed character who has spent more than nine years demanding that the leg of ham he was cheated out of by a local meat market owner be given him. Risa (Erika LaVonne) the waitress at the diner and the only female in the play. Her legs are scarred for reasons later revealed, but so is her character. When she walks it’s as if she’s locked in perpetual slow-motion, her feet dragging across the floor. Once familiarity sets in, the sound of her flat heels trailing behind turn into something practically hypnotic. And finally, the restaurant owner and the play’s central figure, Memphis Lee, though even here the name feels incomplete. It’s more than likely that Memphis is really a nickname.
There are other, equally important characters in the play who are never seen, yet by Wilson’s gift for writing compelling dialog and a cast that can deliver it with such impassioned heat that makes every spoken word sear the air around them, you feel as if you know them and wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly one of them walked into the diner. There’s Lutz the white owner of the meat market who cheated Hambone out of his leg of ham, there’s Old Man Albert the white guy who runs the illegal numbers game and cheats Sterling out of half his winnings, Prophet Samuel, the preacher whose funeral becomes a principal source of conversation, and Aunt Ester, the old black woman who tells fortunes and insists she’s the unlikely age of 322 years, symbolizing the length of the African experience in America.
That African-American Experience is also suggested in the form of oppression when it’s later discovered that Hambone’s body has scars all across his back, a reveal that harkens cruel images of the earlier days of southern flogging. In their way, though different in character, both Hambone and Memphis are also two trains running parallel. Hambone, feeling cheated by a white man, repeatedly declares “I want my ham!” And Memphis, believing the white man will cheat him out of the amount he wants for his restaurant before the bulldozers arrive, repeatedly declares, “I want my twenty-five thousand dollars!”
Long before the undertaker West makes his first entrance, the characters in the diner have talked of him at such great, descriptive length, what he’s like – or their limited, individual perspectives of what he’s like – his appearance, his black suit, his white shirt, and the black gloves that he never removes, that by the time he does finally enter, you feel as if you’ve met the man before. With him also comes humor. When relating that he once buried a woman whose sister insisted her sibling be buried with her garden tomatoes, she kept telling West where to put them. “That wouldn’t have been so bad,” West explains, “But she kept changing her mind.”
With a running length of just over three hours, plus intermission, if you’re unfamiliar with the play, because of its plotless construction and the often slow burn of its character conflicts, there’s every chance you’ll consider the play too long. At the conclusion of Act 2, Scene 4 there’s a very real feel as the spotlight fades on Risa and Sterling that the play is over. In fact, several patrons rose out of their seats and made for the aisle in order to beat the crowd, only to discover there was a Scene 5.
As a result, Two Trains Running isn’t as satisfying a play as either Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Fences; you feel the weight of the length in the introduction of that final scene. Yet the characters themselves have a quality rich with personalities that are so well drawn (and faultlessly played in ATC’s production) you can’t help but bristle with continual excitement at what may be experienced with each new moment and what you can draw from it. When Holloway in his philosophical wisdom declares there is nothing in the world but love and death, you’re immediately reminded of playwright Wilson’s personal philosophy behind the meaning of the title. In Two Trains Running, the thrills are not so much in the character conflicts, they’re in the smallest of details.
Arizona Theatre Company’s Two Trains Running continues at Herberger Theater Center until March 3
Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller